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Belarus: Interception of Aircraft

Volume 696: debated on Monday 24 May 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on what measures he has taken to respond to the interception of a civilian aircraft by a Belarusian fighter and the detention of a journalist.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Yesterday afternoon, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk. There were more than 100 passengers on board, including the prominent independent Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich. The Belarusian authorities claim that this was in relation to an alleged bomb threat, but we have seen no evidence to support that claim. What we have seen is that Belarus scrambled a MiG fighter, forced the plane to divert to Minsk and then used the emergency landing as an opportunity to arrest a prominent journalist.

We understand that Mr Protasevich was detained on spurious charges, including involvement in riots, organisation of actions that violate public order and incitement of hatred and discord. The UK calls for his immediate release and the release of all other political prisoners in Belarus. We are urgently seeking full details of precisely what took place in relation to flight FR4978, but the scenario as reported is a shocking assault on civil aviation and on international law. It represents a danger to civilian flights everywhere, and it is an egregious and extraordinary departure from the international law and international practice that guides international civil aviation under the Chicago convention.

The international community as a whole has a shared interest and a joint stake in ensuring that civilian aircraft can fly safely and without harassment. That is why we are calling for the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to convene urgently to address thoroughly and rigorously this incident. The regime in Minsk must provide a full explanation for what appears to be a serious violation of international law. Mr Lukashenko’s regime must be held to account for such reckless and dangerous behaviour.

For our part, we have summoned the Belarusian ambassador, and the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas is conveying our condemnation of these acts as we speak. We are working with our international partners to explore every potential diplomatic option at ICAO, the UN Security Council, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the G7. Beyond the diplomatic track, we are actively considering and co-ordinating with our allies on further sanctions on those responsible for this outlandish conduct.

To ensure the safety of air passengers, I have also worked with the Transport Secretary to issue a notice to all UK airlines to cease overflights of Belarusian airspace and to suspend the operating permit of the Belarusian airline BELAVIA with immediate effect. That is, of course, the only airline that flies regularly between the UK and Belarus. But in order to be sure, and as a precautionary measure, the UK Civil Aviation Authority will be instructed not to issue any further ad hoc permits to any other carriers flying between the UK and Belarus.

We continue to support civil society and media freedoms in Belarus. We provided more than £1 million in 2020, and in this financial year we are providing an additional £1.8 million. I know the whole House will join me in condemning unequivocally this reprehensible action under the Lukashenko regime. The UK will stand firm in protecting freedom of the media, upholding international law and maintaining the safety of international civil aviation.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

I welcome very much my right hon. Friend’s statement. What he has described, quite correctly, as an outlandish attack is the first time we have seen air piracy in Europe for many years. This attack was a hijacking that turned into a kidnapping, and is a serious violation of the human rights not just of Roman Protasevich, who has been held by the Belarusian authorities, but of every passenger and member of the crew on that airliner. This is a direct threat not just to those who may be dissidents to regimes such as Belarus, but to all of us who are at risk of overflying such a state.

I welcome enormously my right hon. Friend’s decision to suspend travel to Belarus and stop overflights. He is absolutely right to do so, and he joins the Chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committees of Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, the European Union, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Spain and the United States in calling for that. Will he go one step further and call for a suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the Yamal energy pipeline, which flows through Belarus? That is where the money that supports that tyrannous regime comes from. Will he also join European partners and friends, and NATO allies such as the United States, in reinforcing that this was an attack not just on a civilian airliner flying between two EU capitals, but on one flying between two NATO capitals? That includes us, and it is vital to the security of the UK people that we stand strongly against it. Otherwise, everyone flying to Thailand, Australia and many other destinations will have to wonder not only what they may have done to offend a regime they are flying over but what somebody else on the aircraft—somebody they have never met before—has done. Any of these regimes could be inspired, like Lukashenko’s, to force a civilian aircraft out of the sky with threats of violence.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his support for the actions that we have taken today. He is absolutely right about the threat posed to all of us as users of civil aviation and, indeed, to the international community at large, not least given that the ICAO regime is one of the most well-supported international instruments dealing with a common good that we have in the international community. He is right about the ICAO, and the UK has led the calls for an urgent meeting of the council.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s action among parliamentarians around the world. He rightly raised overflights, and he will have seen and noted the decisions that we have taken today. He also raised sanctions, and we will urgently consider further possibilities with our partners. The right thing to do is to co-ordinate to maximise our approach. He will know that we have already imposed targeted sanctions on 99 individuals and entities since the election in August 2020 and we very much led the way at that time. He also mentioned Nord Stream and other possibilities. We will consider and consult with our partners and see what further action they are willing to take.

Finally, I agree with much of my hon. Friend’s characterisation: on the face of it, the Lukashenko regime engaged in a particularly calculating and cynical ploy to force a civilian flight to land under the threat of a MiG fighter and under the hoax of a bomb alert, behaviour that is as dangerous as it is deceitful, and a flagrant violation of international law.

After yesterday’s acts of modern piracy, it is clear that Lukashenko must now be recognised as an international threat—a danger not just to his own people but to the citizens of other countries. For a state to hijack a civilian airliner flying between two NATO allies in order to arrest a journalist is an assault on the freedom of the air and on freedom of speech. Unless the consequences are swift, robust and co-ordinated, it will create an extraordinarily dangerous precedent that will put journalists, dissidents and activists from the UK or anywhere else at risk every time they board a plane. I therefore very much welcome what the Foreign Secretary said today and, in particular, that he has summoned the ambassador and demanded the release of Roman Protasevich and other political prisoners. Those in the Belarusian pro-democracy movement are owed our solidarity and support as they fight for the right to determine their own future through free and fair elections.

I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary’s response when the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) asked about working with allies in NATO and the EU and through ICAO to ban flights through Belarusian airspace, to suspend Belarus from ICAO and, in particular, to block BELAVIA from operating in and out of the UK and to suspend direct flights.

I was interested to hear the Foreign Secretary say he was considering how best to ramp up economic pressure on the regime. In the space of 12 months, the Lukashenko regime has stolen an election, employed brutal repression against its own people and hijacked a civilian airliner, yet fewer Belarusian entities are sanctioned now than were in 2012. Will the Foreign Secretary now bring forward sanctions against state-owned enterprises, some of which continue to have UK subsidiaries, such as BNK (UK)? What steps will he take to stop the Belarusian Government using the London stock exchange to raise finance and sustain Lukashenko’s grip on power? Will he ensure that the UK is no longer a soft touch for corrupt elites from Belarus or elsewhere seeking to store their funds and assets, and will he consider targeted sanctions against individuals such as Mikhail Gutseriyev?

Given the apparent presence of Belarusian KGB agents on the flight, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what assessment he has made of the threat to Belarusians in exile and what can be done to disrupt any Belarusian agents who may be operating in the UK, Europe and NATO allied countries?

Some of these things are easy, and others are much more difficult, but all of them are necessary to stand up for our values and to defend our national interest. If the Foreign Secretary chooses to take a stand on this matter, he can count on our support.

I thank the hon. Lady for her support for the measures that we have taken today. It is important that, so far as possible, subject to all the scrutiny, accountability and challenge expected, we show a united front in the face of such appalling acts by appalling regimes, of which the Lukashenko regime is one. I agree with her characterisation, as I did with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). The Lukashenko regime has done something that threatens not only the Belarusian people but attacks a common good, most notably by endangering a key tenet of the international system of civil aviation. That threat accrues to us all, and we must stand up against it.

The hon. Lady mentions sanctions. I am not sure that her numbers were quite right. For clarity, we have sanctioned 99 individuals and entities. That mix includes those sanctioned under the country-specific sanctions regime and the extra individuals that we sanctioned as a result of the global human rights sanctions regime that I introduced. On top of that, she will know that we have extended the Magnitsky sanctions regime to cover corruption and embezzlement and improprieties of that nature. She mentioned a couple of names. She will understand that we are evidence-based, but if she has evidence or thinks that there are individuals who should be designated, I encourage her to let us have that information.

Finally, the hon. Lady raises an important point. Clearly, there is now a threat not just to dissidents and journalists in Belarus who have the temerity to stand up to the regime, but to those who do so around the world. Through our global Media Freedom Coalition, in which we work very closely with the Canadians, and a whole range of other mechanisms internationally, it is important that we stand up for those freedoms and those individuals wherever they may be.

The outrageous kidnapping of Mr Pratasevich has rightly received unqualified condemnation from across the House, but he is only the most recent in a despicably long list of opposition politicians and journalists who have been arrested or disappeared as part of Alexander Lukashenko’s latest appalling crackdown on legitimate opposition. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what action he and the Government are taking to secure the release of all political prisoners in Belarus?

I know, because of my hon. Friend’s background, how particularly personal it is for him when he sees journalists arrested, detained or otherwise mistreated around the world. I agree with much of what he suggests, as I made clear in my opening answer. We are pouring in millions of pounds to support civil society and journalists in Belarus. From day one we have called for the release of all political prisoners. We did that when we first triggered the Moscow mechanism as part of the OSCE, and we continue to engage with leading democratic figures, including Mrs Tikhanovskaya.

I warmly congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee on bringing this urgent issue to the House, and I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcements about the overfly and the flights of Belavia. There has been a clear breach of articles 3 and 4 of the Chicago convention, and it is almost unimaginable that we have seen over the weekend a state hijacking of a civilian aircraft going between two EU and NATO capitals. This cannot stand.

We must work with our international allies. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the European Council is meeting this evening. Will he commit to engaging with it and to mirror its agreed response, which obviously has not happened yet? Will he express further solidarity by giving practical aid to Belarusian activists, journalists and agitators and by making it easier for these brave individuals to claim asylum in the UK? What assessment has his Department made of Russian involvement in this action? It seems inconceivable that this could have been a unilateral act by Minsk. There was surely some Russian involvement. Will there be consequences for the Russian state as well as the Belarusian state when things are decided?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the statement and the measures. He referred to breaches of the Chicago convention, and I agree that they are striking and shocking. He also asked what co-ordination we are engaged in with our EU partners. Notwithstanding our departure from the EU, this is a very good example of the key foreign policy issues on which we will want to co-ordinate very carefully with it. We have done that before. He will recall that, after the rigged election, we led the way, but co-ordinated closely with our European partners, when we imposed Magnitsky sanctions.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about Russian involvement. We do not have any clear details on that. I will be careful what I say at this point. As he says, it is difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow, but, as I say, that is unclear as yet.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement because the events yesterday, as others have said, were effectively the state hijacking of a commercial passenger plane. This is just another episode in Lukashenko’s campaign to silence opposition to his regime, both within and beyond the Belarusian borders. There is no room for such behaviour anywhere in the world, let alone in Europe.

My right hon. Friend has set out the immediate action that he is taking, but what is he doing to support a peaceful transition to a democratically elected head of state in Belarus? When will he meet Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader in Belarus?

I commend my right hon. Friend for raising the issue so tenaciously, as she always does. I have had positive discussion with opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whom I spoke to in February. The Europe Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), has also spoken to her. We will continue that engagement, which is very important. We make the case for free and fair elections as soon as possible according to international standards. We certainly support, as we did at the outset, not just the Moscow mechanism, but the implementation of Professor Benedek’s recommendations on the need for elections and his findings in relation to human rights abuses.

My right hon. Friend asks the key question, which is how we can go from sanctions supporting civil society to encouraging some form of democratic transition. I have to say that the Lukashenko regime looks very dug in. It has the protective umbrella from Moscow and I think that what we saw over the weekend was a symptom and a sign of it. I think it incumbent on the international community to keep up the very robust pressure as far as we can, increase it wherever we can and use every mechanism at our disposal. The key difference from what we have seen previously is that the actions of the Lukashenko regime are targeted not just at its own people, but at attacking an international common good that is reflected in the Chicago convention. That gives us at least the ability, with our allies, to work to apply pressure in that forum. We will continue to do that.

It is not surprising that the Lukashenko regime operates with a belief in its impunity, but this state piracy is most definitely a new step that requires a response that is seen to be proportionate. In that context, could the Foreign Secretary return to the question of the Belarus state’s use of subsidiary companies operating in the United Kingdom and whether we can apply pressure on them to prevent the state from having access to resources that come through this country of ours? In doing so, can we co-ordinate with our European Union allies? That is something that the Belarusian opposition most certainly wants to see: tough action against a leader who has lost all credibility and legitimacy.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman’s instincts. I am not sure that it is correct that there are businesses taking advantage, but I reassure him that amid the panoply of measures that we are now considering, we will look very carefully at what further pressure we can apply. That will include any further tightening of restrictions on access to the UK or other financial markets for what we see passing through London.

Today I issued a media statement on behalf of the entire UK delegation to the Council of Europe condemning the actions of the Belarusian Government and of President Lukashenko. We call for the immediate release of Raman Pratasevich and all political prisoners in the country. Some of us have already befriended such prisoners to provide them with hope and comfort. Is it not time to consider that an international warrant should be issued for the arrest of President Lukashenko on charges of terrorism?

To mount a case of that nature, we would need quite specific and clear evidence; of course, that is for the Crown Prosecution Service and other law enforcement authorities to consider. I commend my hon. Friend: among the international bodies that we must press to hold the Lukashenko regime to account, I did not mention the Council of Europe, but although Belarus is not a party to it, it is an important European forum for us to apply pressure among the wider European international community. I commend him and the UK delegation for all the work that they are doing.

May I begin by joining those who are welcoming the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the actions taken so far? From the violent crackdowns on protestors last summer, to the terrible repression of journalists, which of course has now escalated to state-sponsored air piracy that has put civilians at risk, it is clear that the Belarusian authorities have no regard for democracy, human rights or the rule of law. They act with impunity because they know Russia has their back. Although we would all love to believe that this will be the last we hear of this, we all know that that is unlikely. The UK hosts the G7 soon, which is an opportunity to raise the issue of the events in Belarus and co-ordinate further international action, so will the Foreign Secretary consider putting Belarus on the agenda of the G7?

We are already doing it, but the hon. Lady is right to say that the G7, amid the other forums, is where something like this should be considered, not least because of the attack on the international system, via the Chicago convention, and ICAO.

This is not just a state-sponsored hijack of a civilian aircraft going between two NATO capitals; we know from the Belarus media that it was ordered by Lukashenko himself. This is an international crime that requires the strongest response, and although I welcome the stopping of overflight and a UK lead on this, increasingly both Belarus and Russia do not care what the international community thinks. Therefore, all our allies need to act in synchrony, including some of the weakest links, or tyrannies all over the world will see that air passengers are increasingly put at risk.

I agree with my right hon. Friend’s instincts. I was in Estonia and then Oslo recently, precisely because of the importance among our Nordic and Baltic partners—key NATO allies—of strengthening and reinforcing the stance they take in relation both to Russia and to the emanation of those threats that we have seen in Ukraine and now in Belarus.

I welcome this statement on what was clearly an act of piracy by an illegitimate Government that puts them firmly in the rogue nations bracket. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern that this now becomes a tactic that these rogue nations may use again, unless there is a firm response? No air crew could ignore a threat of a bomb or some other threat to their aircraft, and would have to divert to the nearest airfield. This is putting at risk not only this flight, but potentially many more and the safety of their passengers, unless we can come down much harder on the perpetrators.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why we have taken the actions we need to take in relation to flights to and from the UK, and why we have called for an urgent meeting of the ICAO Council to address these issues in the most appropriate forum. However, let us face it: this also represents a threat to international security. That is why we have raised the issue in the United Nations Security Council.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for the excellent work he is doing in the Council of Europe. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Lukashenko must accept that his recent actions are a step too far and that the only way forward for Belarus is for the dictator to halt his campaign of oppression, release political prisoners and hold free and fair elections with international observers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I agree with that list. Ultimately, it is difficult to see how Belarus, under the Lukashenko regime, can take any steps out of its pariah status unless those things happen, including free and fair elections, which would inevitably lead to a change of leadership.

The European Federation of Journalists has called this kidnapping from a civilian airline an

“act of air piracy and state terrorism.”

It is difficult to disagree. As we know, basic freedoms and human rights are being eroded in Belarus, where 29 journalists are now detained. Along with having the most robust and effective sanctions targeting this rogue regime, what action will the Foreign Secretary be taking to investigate the possible involvement of other states in this criminal incident?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that sanctions are a part of the strategic approach, but not the only aspect that we need to look at. We will, of course, look carefully at the involvement of anyone else, although gleaning evidential standards of information is often very difficult. As I mentioned before, we are supporting civil society in Belarus with an additional £1.5 million programme of support over the next two years. In March this year, we allocated a further almost £2 million of support for the media in Belarus. We need to use every lever at our disposal not just to put pressure on the regime, but to try to glean the answers to some of the questions that she rightly raises.

May I underline what the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee said about the dangers of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in this context? When adopting this aerial adaptation from the Putin playbook of how to deal with dissidents, Lukashenko was clearly expecting an outcry, but already we are hearing suggestions that we must not be too harsh against Belarus, otherwise we will be driving him further into the Russian embrace. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that no such argument of appeasement will be accepted by him and his fellow Ministers?

I can give my right hon. Friend exactly that assurance. The fact is that Lukashenko is already ensconced in the embrace of Moscow. The question is how we can prise the leadership away from that. It must be a mixture of the pressure for which my right hon. Friend and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee rightly call, and a willingness to have the door of diplomacy left ajar should more pragmatic voices within that regime be willing to take positive steps forward. Ultimately, those steps must end in free and fair elections; that is what the OSCE investigations have called for and that is what the UK will stand for.

We can all agree that the most robust international response to this shocking act of aviation piracy is essential, otherwise Lukashenko’s methods could embolden other despots in the view that democratic nations lack the will to back up their outrage with meaningful action. As well as the co-ordinated international action against Belarus that the Secretary of State has spoken about today, what other support does he think can be offered to protect and assist human rights defenders in Belarus?

The hon. Lady asks a timely question. In reality, we have a number of levers, but let us not pretend that they are a silver bullet. We have provided and are continuing to provide support for civil society, media freedoms and media organisations. We apply the Magnitsky human rights sanctions, so there is pressure, and we hold to account those who persecute protestors, political figures or journalists. We raise the matter in every international forum we can—from the Human Rights Council to the United Nations Security Council—and we will use our presidency of the G7 to keep the flame of freedom burning for those poor souls who are in detention, whether they are journalists or political figures.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the Chair the Foreign Affairs Committee, on securing this urgent question. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s very swift statements on how to respond to this hijacking, but I want to push him a little bit further. I am anxious that the tactics used recently will encourage other curious countries. What confidence can the Foreign Secretary give to journalists, activists or other individuals who are sanctioned for spurious reasons, in case their lives may now be under threat; what work can be done to strengthen western allies to ensure that their safety is met?

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker—piracy has been mentioned a few times and as the previous Maritime Minister, I cannot let this point go. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the tactics that have played out may encourage countries such as China, which claims sovereignty over the whole South China sea? A third of the world’s maritime trade crosses through those waters, and if China could claim the right to intercept any ship or any plane crossing over the South China sea—

Order. I allowed the hon. Lady a little latitude, but I think it is a bit much to take complete control of the debate; we want short questions.

My hon. Friend is understandably worried about the wider international implications of this action. One of the things we discussed at the G7 meeting of Foreign Ministers was the importance not only of addressing these issues country by country but of the thematic protection of the international order. I have already mentioned the coalition for media freedom; on top of that we discussed support for the other Canadian-inspired initiative to counter the arbitrary detention of nationals or, indeed, dual nationals abroad—I am thinking in relation to Iran, but also more generally. On top of that, I hope the House knows that in March we launched the international accountability platform on Belarus to collect, verify and store evidence of human rights violations. That initiative was led by Britain, Denmark and Germany, a total of 20 states support it and we have provided money for it. That allows us to gather the evidence not just to call out abuses but, as some have mentioned, to pave the way for prosecutions when that is feasible in due course.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise the criticism by many in the Belarusian diaspora that the response to last year’s stolen elections was too soft? Will he get tough by imposing sanctions on Belarusian individuals and companies, including the UK arm of the state oil company, BNK UK Ltd?

I think we all want to stand up for the same issue. I have spoken to a range of the key figures and that is not the feedback we have had, at least in terms of the UK response. We engaged very swiftly—before the EU, in fact—after the rigged election and imposed sanctions on 99 individuals in total, if we include not only the Belarusian regime but the Magnitsky sanctions that we imposed. I take the hon. Lady’s broader point. It is a question not of tit-for-tat but of making sure that we exercise every potential due diligence to stand up and hold to account those who violate people’s human rights and—I think this was the hon. Lady’s point—making sure that we seal every crack so that there is no possibility of businesses linked to the regime making money in this country.

There is no doubt that Belarus is now a rogue state. Lukashenko is a criminal, and I hope that eventually he will spend many years in prison. I celebrate the phenomenal courage of the politicians, activists, ordinary members of the public and, of course, journalists, who have made sacrifices that none of us in the UK would ever even dream of having to make. I have a terrible fear that every time we discuss these authoritarian regimes and issue another statement, we are basically throwing another snowball into a river. When are we actually going to take serious measures to make sure that these things do not go unpunished?

I have campaigned on these issues with the hon. Gentleman for many years and he is always an eloquent, powerful, tenacious and articulate advocate. I am not quite sure what action we could take that he thought we should take, but I am open to all suggestions, in a spirit of openness, and we need to marshal all our resources. One issue that I have not mentioned is that we are one of the largest shareholders in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and—I say this for completeness—we fully support its announcement that it will no longer support Belarusian sovereign funds. I accept the argument that we need to look at every possible lever, but, as the hon. Gentleman alluded to and implied, that is not easy when a regime is as dug in as the Lukashenko regime so clearly is.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for securing the urgent question and the Foreign Secretary for his statement on this very serious attack on civil liberties and the free press. I welcome the sanctions that have already been imposed on the illegitimate Belarusian regime through the Government’s newly established global human rights scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that standing up for our values by imposing sanctions on human rights abusers such as Lukashenko must be a key part of global Britain’s new foreign policy approach?

It not only should be but is, as set out in the integrated review. We stand up for our values—the values of open trade and open societies, including human rights and democracy—and that means holding to account those who perpetrate violations, and standing up and keeping the flame of freedom alive for those poor souls who are languishing in jails, whether in Belarus or elsewhere around the world.

There is no doubt that this was an act of air piracy designed to abduct a critic of the tyrannical Belarusian regime, and there is no doubt that the regime has been emboldened by the Russian regime’s law-breaking exercises around the world. It is important that the Secretary of State take every action, with every possible body, whether it is the EU, the G7, financial institutions or private investors—anyone who can hurt this regime—to send a message to it, and to any who would seek to copy it, that this behaviour will not be tolerated and there will be financial, personal and political consequences.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s disgust and outrage. The Lukashenko regime is slipping further and further into pariah status. We will take every measure we can, whether at a diplomatic level, through sanctions or more broadly, to stand up for the values of human rights, particularly freedom of civil aviation, but also crucially to send a message around the world to others that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated.

The kidnapping of Roman Protasevich is the worst example of what has been a systematic campaign by the Belarusian Government against journalists. Last year there were 480 detentions of journalists, who spent more than 1,200 days behind bars, and at least 62 cases of physical violence against them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to send a strong message to Belarus and other repressive regimes that this is an attack on democracy and legitimate free speech that will not be tolerated?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We raised precisely this kind of systematic attack at the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting, and we will continue to do so.

While we have a long-standing position of challenging the results of Lukashenko’s fraudulent election win last year, we have to be honest and say that this case is a departure from these entrenched disagreements and represents a direct attack on the citizens of our EU allies and on international law. Given that plain reality, it is right that sanctions up to and including the freezing of Belarusian state funds are effected, but what new measures will the Government consider for granting asylum to those supressed by the Lukashenko regime?

Asylum has been raised already. The criteria in the asylum regime are reflective of international law and are fit for purpose. The evidence of this regime’s despicable actions means that those who want to apply for asylum in this country are able to do so and will get the fair hearing and due process that our system allows.

The Foreign Secretary is quite right to call for the International Civil Aviation Organisation to take action. Given that its aim is to sit at the centre of a system of safety and security standards for its 193 members and given that Belarus is a member, will he call for ICAO to look at Belarus’s continued membership of such an esteemed international organisations?

I certainly agree that ICAO must discharge its duties. This is a dramatic but seminal moment for it to stand up for the values that we are all trying to safeguard in relation to civil aviation. We will look very closely with our partners at the mechanisms and levers available to us within ICAO and will take as rigorous and robust an approach as we can.

The SDLP and I condemn in the strongest possible terms the actions of the Belarusian Government and echo what others have said about the importance of sanctions and of holding Lukashenko and his Russian protectors to account. This is the latest attack in recent years on journalistic freedom, including the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on entirely trumped-up charges and, closer to home, intimidation of journalists here in Northern Ireland by paramilitaries. What action are the Secretary of State and his Department taking to co-operate with other countries committed to a free press to uphold the rights of journalists and to challenge attacks on freedom of speech and journalistic integrity?

The hon. Lady raises a great point, which is that in order to exert positive influence we have to co-ordinate with our allies, so we need to broaden the group of like-minded countries willing to take that action. She can see the evidence of the initiatives we are engaged in, through the media freedom coalition, which advises states on how to strengthen legislation to protect journalists, and the financial support we give to journalists who find themselves detained. More broadly, one of the things we discussed at the most recent G7 Foreign Ministers meeting was the arbitrary detention mechanism, which effectively says that when one or other of us in that mechanism finds one of our nationals or dual nationals arbitrarily detained, we all démarche and take action to try to secure their release.

Western flights continue to transit over this unpredictable airspace; I hope that the Foreign Secretary will make it clear that that needs to stop. For a European state to fake a terrorist threat shows how our international standards are being challenged. Other authoritarian states will be watching how the west responds—how resolute we are and how unified we are in our response. He listed a whole bunch of international organisations that will no doubt condemn what has happened, but will it affect Belarus’s behaviour? Will it change Lukashenko’s attitude? We need to make sure that we think bigger picture and recognise that a quarter of Belarus’s trade looks towards the west. I encourage the Foreign Secretary to make the changes that will affect Belarus’s behaviour in the longer term.

I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Defence Committee. I agree that we need to use every lever. I am not quite sure which specific one he thinks would be the decisive extra measure to bring Lukashenko to his senses, but I am very interested in continuing to talk to him about that. The reality is that Lukashenko becomes more and more reliant on Russia—I take the point that was made about that. We must not allow that to be a reason to ease up on the pressure, but we have to be realistic about how dug in Lukashenko is. We have ruled out nothing going forward. The most important thing is that we try to carry a broader group of international partners, and the reason that that is particular germane in this case is that the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Chicago convention represent an international public good.

I am delighted to hear the Foreign Secretary say that the Government will take a very tough response to this act of air piracy. Does the Foreign Secretary detect any sense of reticence from his counterparts in other countries in their response and any suggestion from them that we should take a softer approach to win round the Belarussian regime?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. There will always be different views across the European family and I would be a bit reluctant about advertising that to Minsk or Moscow, for obvious reasons. What I would say is that we are in the business of supporting some of the most vulnerable of our European partners. That is why I was out in Estonia to talk to the Baltic three and I went to Oslo to talk to the Nordic five. I invited all of them back to the UK, to be hosted at Chevening, because I think that the support that we provide to that periphery of the European neighbourhood is absolutely crucial to supporting fellow NATO and European allies and to the message that we send not just to Minsk and Moscow, but around the world, as hon. Members have said.

I am grateful to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for applying for this urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. It has been clear that both sides of the House are united behind the actions that the Foreign Secretary has taken already on behalf of the British Government. May I say to him that in order to make sure that this does not happen again, as a result of the Belarussian Government or anyone else, the price paid by that Government must be sufficiently high? Also, what work is under way to look at other countries—the sorts of countries that might be tempted to do such things—to see whether there is any pre-emptive action that we might need to take to make sure that British people flying around the world are kept safe and that no others are put at risk by that sort of behaviour from this state or any other?

My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. First, we will use all the sanctions—all the levers—that we have at our disposal. We are conscious, as we have discussed and as others have said, of the extent of increasing reliance on Russia, but that cannot be a reason for us not to take the action we take. This is unique; I cannot remember as far back as the ’70s there being a1an analogous case. It is very rare. Sometimes actions are taken more through cock-up than conspiracy—sometimes very tragically when aircraft are shot down—but I cannot think of a precedent for this kind of rather calculated and conniving approach, with the MiG jet and the bomb hoax. My right hon. Friend is right to reinforce, as others have done, the deterrent effect of how we respond to this specific, isolated incident.

I welcome the very robust political and diplomatic stance that the Government are taking, but this case is more than that. This is a potential human tragedy as well, with Roman Protasevich now in detention and possibly ultimately facing the death penalty. I know, having campaigned in different parts of the world, that consular and embassy staff are very effective in the way in which they deploy their resources in supporting people campaigning against the use of the death penalty. Can the Foreign Secretary give me some assurance that everything that can be done to keep this case in the public eye will be done, within the confines of their role in country?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and I totally agree with him. We must do everything we can to signal that, as outrageous it is what they have already done, it would be a further step into pariah status if the death penalty were to be applied. I thank him for what he said about consular officers. They relate to and provide services to British nationals and dual nationals abroad, but none the less, the broader point he makes about diplomatically keeping the pressure on and doing everything we can to avoid the death penalty is very important in this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on mentioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Bearing in mind that Lukashenko does not do anything without the authority of Moscow, their comments are particularly relevant to this debate. May I ask the Foreign Secretary what additional steps he is going to take against President Lukashenko? We already know that certain sanctions are in place against him and his cronies. Is there anything else that the Foreign Secretary can do specifically about additional British sanctions on this dictator?

Yes, we will look at the panoply of sanctions on individuals. On sectoral sanctions, we will co-ordinate with our partners as to whether those are appropriate. We will take action in ICAO in the way that we have described, because of the importance of securing civil aviation, but we will also raise this issue in the United Nations Security Council because of the threat it poses more broadly to international peace and stability.

As an aircraft engineer and student of international relations, I am perhaps especially outraged by this brazen assault on international norms and the deliberate endangering of an aircraft by means of military force. For Lukashenko to have deployed the apparatus of the state to effect an act of vengeful piracy against flight FR4978 rides roughshod over the international system and cannot, as the Secretary of State has outlined, go unchallenged. Will he therefore commit the UK, and underline the UK’s role within an international coalition, to effecting the utmost in sanctions, including the freezing of assets against the Lukashenko regime? Does he agree that if the international community is now looking on aghast at a step change in delinquency by a state actor, should not people who are thinking of mirroring that also look on aghast at the consequences that the international community puts out?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the action we take and the deterrent effect it has. He mentioned asset freezes; asset freezes in relation to 99 individuals and entities are already in place, but we will, as I have already said, look right across the full range to see what further action we should take and look to work very closely with our international allies about which options to take forward.

Sitting suspended.